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“When we were living in Uzbekistan, someone managed to bring three pears from the Crimea,” recalled Kurtsyeit Osmanov, who now lives near Simferopol, one of the peninsula’s major cities. “The whole village shared those three pears.

“The whole village drank a bottle of water from the Crimea in half gulps,” he continued. “Once, it happened that someone was dying in great pain. They gave him water from the Black Sea, and he passed away more easily.”

Though the Soviets “pardoned” the Tatars in the 1960’s, the authorities prohibited them from returning until Soviet central authority began to unravel in the late 1980’s. Tens of thousands returned from 1989 to 1991. Some were original exiles, like Mrs. Zhurayeva and Mr. Osmanov. Others were their children or grandchildren. According to Ukraine’s 2001 census, Tatars make up 12 percent of the peninsula’s population of two million.

Though the Crimean’s Tatars face considerable challenges — the reclamation of ancient villages, burial grounds as well as cultural and spiritual renewal — their ethnic kinsmen, Crimean Karaim, struggle on a vastly different scale.

Now numbering just 2,000 people across the globe, Crimean Karaim reject Rabbinic Judaism, oral law and any blood relation to the people of ancient Israel, yet they devoutly follow the Torah. About 800 remain in the Crimea, where in the city of Yevpatoria they maintain two synagogues, called kenesas (derived from the Aramaic for “assembly” or “church”).

“In Ukraine today there is a program to support national minorities,” explained Yurii Polkanov, head of the World Association of Karaites. “The Karaim fall under this program, which puts them in the same category with Romanians, Crimean Tatars and Russians.

“But entirely different tasks stand before our development. The Karaim are passing away, and perhaps this generation, if not supported, will become the last Karaim.”

One activity to “save” the community is an annual camp to clean the territory near the ancient fortress at Dzhuft-Kale, including the cemetery. The youth work there, and also get acquainted. According to their beliefs, only Karaim may clean up their cemeteries. This cemetery, the site of many secret religious observances in Soviet times, contains an oak tree believed to link the living to their ancestors.

“A number of weddings have resulted from these annual camps,” noted Mr. Polkanov. “The birth of a child in these families is an event anticipated by the entire community.”

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Petro Didula is press attaché of the Ukrainian Catholic University. Matthew Matuszak is the English-language editor of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.



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Tags: Ukraine Muslim Jews Soviet Union Crimea